Owls in Mythology & Culture
|Compiled by Deane Lewis 1999-03-20, last updated 2005-05-13|
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Throughout history and across many cultures,
people have regarded Owls with
fascination and awe. Few other creatures have so many different and contradictory beliefs
about them. Owls have been both feared and venerated, despised and admired, considered
wise and foolish, and associated with witchcraft and medicine, the weather, birth and
death. Speculation about Owls began in earliest folklore, too long ago to date, but passed
down by word of mouth over generations.
In early Indian folklore, Owls represent wisdom and helpfulness, and have
powers of prophecy. This theme recurs in Aesop's fables and in Greek myths and beliefs. By
the Middle Ages in Europe, the Owl had become the associate of witches and the inhabitant
of dark, lonely and profane places, a foolish but feared spectre. An Owl's appearance at
night, when people are helpless and blind, linked them with the unknown, its eerie call
filled people with foreboding and apprehension: a death was imminent or some evil was at
hand. During the eighteenth century the zoological aspects of Owls were detailed through
close observation, reducing the mystery surrounding these birds. With superstitions dying
out in the twentieth century - in the West at least - the Owl has returned to its position
as a symbol of wisdom.
Owls in Greek & Roman Mythology
In the mythology of ancient Greece,
Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom, was so impressed by the great eyes and solemn
appearance of the Owl that, having banished the mischievous crow, she honoured
the night bird by making him her favourite among feathered creatures. Athene's
bird was a Little Owl, (Athene noctua). This Owl was protected and
inhabited the Acropolis in great numbers. It was believed that a magical
"inner light" gave Owls night vision. As the symbol of Athene, the Owl was a
protector, accompanying Greek armies to war, and providing ornamental
inspiration for their daily lives. If an Owl flew over Greek Soldiers before a
battle, they took it as a sign of victory. The Little Owl also kept a watchful
eye on Athenian trade and commerce from the reverse side of their coins.
Athenian silver tetradrachm
Classical style, 5th century BC.
Athenian silver tetradrachm
Hellenistic style, 2nd century BC.
In early Rome a dead Owl nailed to the door of a house averted all evil that it
supposedly had earlier caused. To hear the hoot of an Owl presaged imminent death. The
deaths of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa were apparently all
predicted by an Owl.
"...yesterday, the bird of night did sit Even at noonday, upon the market place,
Hooting and shrieking" (from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar")
The Roman Army was warned of impending disaster by an Owl before its defeat at Charrhea,
on the plains between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
According to Artemidorus, a second Century soothsayer, to dream of an Owl meant that a
traveller would be shipwrecked or robbed.
Another Roman superstition was that witches transformed into Owls, and sucked the blood of
In Roman Mythology, Proserpine (Persephone) was transported to the underworld against
her will by Pluto (Hades), god of the underworld, and was to be allowed to return to her
mother Ceres (Demeter), goddess of agriculture, providing she ate nothing while in the
underworld. Ascalpus, however, saw her picking a pomegranate, and told what he had seen.
He was turned into an Owl for his trouble - "a sluggish Screech Owl, a loathsome
bird." (Names in brackets indicate the Greek names for the same Gods)
Owls in English Folklore
Folklore surrounding the Barn Owl is better recorded than for most other Owls. In
English literature the Barn Owl had a sinister reputation probably because it was a bird
of darkness, and darkness was always associated with death. During the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, the poets Robert Blair and William Wordsworth used the Barn Owl as
their favourite "bird of doom." During that same period many people believed
that the screech or call of an Owl flying past the window of a sick person meant imminent
The Barn Owl has also been used to predict the weather by people in England. A
screeching Owl meant cold weather or a storm was coming. If heard during foul weather a
change in the weather was at hand.
The Custom of nailing an Owl to a
barn door to ward off evil and lightning persisted into the 19th century.
Another traditional English belief was that if you walked around an Owl in a tree, it
would turn and turn its head to watch you until it wrung its own neck.
Among early English folk cures, alcoholism was treated with Owl egg. The imbiber was
prescribed raw eggs and a child given this treatment was thought to gain lifetime
protection against drunkenness.
Owls' eggs, cooked until they turned into ashes, were also used as a potion to improve eyesight.
Owl Broth was given to children suffering from Whooping-cough.
Odo of Cheriton, a Kentish preacher the 12th Century has this explanation of why the
Owl is nocturnal: The Owl had stolen the rose, which was a prize awarded for beauty, and
the other birds punished it by allowing it to come out only at night.
In parts of northern England it is good luck to see an Owl.
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